It has been almost four years since the Arab Revolutions surprised the world and a new generation of Arab youth took to the streets and the Internet to express their discontent regarding the rampant corruption, human rights abuses, economic inequality, and increased repression and censorship they were facing. Tunisia, the country where the Arab Spring began, just celebrated their first Presidential election, giving hope that democracy is real and possible once the dictators are gone. For human rights in the digital age, the struggle is just beginning. While more Arab countries are connected to the Internet than ever before, some countries, including Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, are still imprisoning citizens because of their online activities, and are passing anachronistic laws hindering expression, creativity and innovation.
But a new generation of Arab leaders is emerging. On November 24th and 25th — and with the support of the Web Foundation through the Web We Want Initiative — around 40 activists from 14 countries in the Arab Region gathered at a private meeting in Beirut, Lebanon to design a regional strategy for more effectively demanding their rights and freedoms online. The meeting took place on the eve of the Arab Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Beirut, and was held at Nasawiya, a cultural centre working to promote gender and LGBT rights in Lebanon — a venue that exemplifies how the region is opening up and embracing a more just and tolerant society.
Conversation at the meeting explored a wide range of themes — from women and the role the Internet can play in promoting their rights, to free software, strategic infrastructure, and which political venues are critical to promoting a change of attitude among governments and private sector companies.
The two-day workshop closed with a public event at Alt City, a thriving hackerspace for startups, where a group of seven speakers from different countries across the region shared their thoughts on the Web the Arab Region Wants. Huffington Post journalist Ahmed Shihab-Eldin (@ASE) also shared his thoughts on what the Web the Arab Region Wants might look like, and all participants later engaged in an interactive dialogue with journalist Glenn Greenwald about the impact of the NSA revelations for Arabs.
We hope this event can be the seed that leads to further coordinated efforts and actions to create a working agenda in the region, that can connect with other agendas in different regions of the world, and bring some much needed diversity and innovation to conversations in this space.